Of Guns and Printers

Much hay has been made about 3D-printed plastic guns, and along comes a new set of articles about the same folks, this time announcing that a milling machine can make the parts that really do need to be made of metal, as reported here.  Of course, CNC machines have been around for a long, long time; so the idea that this is new is somewhat inaccurate. Yet as the price of automated milling machines comes down over the years, it is true that regulated production of metal parts, such as the receiver in a gun, becomes ever more irrelevant. The Maker movement is a fabulous form of empowerment; but we will always see ramifications that will be less inspiring and more threatening to our own freedom.  This is a one-way street we are walking down.

Mediocracy’s Reality: Economist special issue

The current issue of The Economist contains a special report on Advertising and Technology called Little Brother, edited by Alexandra Suich.  Without a subscription, they will only give you access to the leader article, but I found very useful discussions throughout about the ways in which our behavior has become digital labor, able to be collected, analyzed and shared to provide revenue streams to innumerable shadow companies without our faintest awareness.  A few of my favorite tidbits from this special issue follow; all of them show that we are well on our way to what I call Mediocracy, when our digital and physical trails will, together, turn us ever so gradually into automatons at the call of algorithms with the power to build nearly ideal remote control units for every one of us.

most marketers say they have seen more change in the past two years than in the previous 50.

Richard Edelman, the boss of Edelman, a public-relations firm, describes the media and advertising business as a “mosh pit.” Media companies are producing more content on behalf of advertisers, dubbed “native advertising.” At the same time some advertisers have taken to hiring their own journalists to produce stories, websites and videos.

Facebook and Twitter accumulate heaps of information, including ages, friends and interests, about people who sign up for accounts and spend time on sites. Some of it is collected without users being aware of it. For example, Facebook’s “Like” and Twitter’s “Tweet” buttons on other websites carry a code that enables the social-networking companies to track users’ movements even if they do not click those buttons…

BlueKai, for example, compiles around 1 billion profiles of potential customers around the world, each with an average of 50 attributes.

According to TRUSTE, the 100 most widely used websites are monitored by more than 1,300 firms. Some of these firms share data with other outsiders, an arrangement known as “piggybacking.”

RadiumOne, an advertising-technology company, puts cookies on users, normally unbeknown to them, when they click on a weblink sent by a friend.

PubMatic, a firm that helps publishers sell advertising space in real time, provides some 50-70 data points about users on desktops and around 100 on mobile, including the mobile device’s precise position.

Credit Card companies, including Visa, MasterCard and American Express, all sell anonymised data about their cardholders to advertising companies…American Express has an edge..because it actually issues the card enabling it to put cookies on users when they log in to check their statements and see where else they go online.

Companies are also keen to connect the offline and online worlds. Facebook, for example, has joined with Datalogix, a data provider, to link purchases in both spheres. Acxiom, one of the largest data brokers with expertise in the offline world, recently paid more than $300m to buy LiveRamp, a firm that helps match offline data about customers with online information.

Sometimes advertisers do not use information they have because they do not want to look as though they are spying on customers. “We can do more technologically than we’re permitted to culturally…”

Google and Facebook alone controlled over 47% of all digital advertising in America last year, according to eMarketer, and over 57% of mobile advertising.

Robots and Half-Jobs

Many news stations today have reported on Harvard Business School’s report, An Economy Doing Half its Job, by Michael Porter and Jan Rivkin. The news stories have concentrated mainly on the big picture executive summary of the report, where the authors point out that large and mid-sized firms are recovering in the U.S., but that the individual workers comprising the middle class have been thoroughly left behind.  One issue close to my heart is the state of K-12 education in the U.S., and this report does not make that picture a pretty one. K-12 continues to decline in quality, and what efforts business undertakes to help end up being piecemeal, never really positively affecting the systemic problems with education that we face across the nation. 

Fundamentally, the report is a snapshot of inequality. Some choice passages:

In the lower and middle strata of the income distribution, household incomes have remained stagnant in real terms for decades…Labor force participation in America peaked in 1997 and has now fallen to levels not seen in three decades. Real hourly wages have stalled even among college-educated Americans…Notably, all of these trends began well before the Great Recession. they are structural, not cyclical.


But the report does reach conclusions on the question of underemployment as well, in a section labeled An Aversion to Full-time Hires.  The leading paragraph is well worth quoting in its whole:

First, our survey reveals that business leaders in America are reluctant to hire full-time workers. When possible, they prefer instead to invest in technology to perform work, outsource activites to third parties, or hire part-time workers. For instance, 46% of survey respondents strongly or somewhat agreed that their firms’ U.S. operations prefer to invest in technology to perform work rather than hire or retain employees, while only 25% disagreed.

The report goes on to say, preferences for automation, outsourcing, and part-time hires are likely to lead to less skills development. True, the workers who run the automated equipment, the employees of outside vendors, and the part-timers may receive some training, but that is unlikely to offset the skills that are no longer developed in equivalent full-timers.

Many more details are in the report- particularly on page 22- and I recommend you leaf through the report yourself. You can download your own copy here.


Food: a mediocracy antidote

In this weekend’s New York Times, David Segal writes Hey Chef: Next Time, Skip the Fennel about Dinner Lab, which creates eating events around the country, mated with an attitude that invites participants to give the chefs no-holds-barred comments regarding the food they have just eaten. I perked up when Dinner Lab, Segal explains, started compiling massive data on eaters’ feedback, presuming that they would be making a bundle of money reselling this behavioral analytics information to mega-restaurant chains. As I sharpened my Mediocracy antennae, however, the surprise ending grabbed me: no chains were interested in the food preferences behavioral data. What we like to eat, it seems, is not digitally trumping the intuition of your local neighborhood chef just yet. As restauranteurs explained, food is a cultural experience. The milieu is just as important as the analytical, dry examination of ingredients and spices. So behavioral analytics does not scale to food just yet, and this reminds us that culture is a phenomenon that we may try to wave away when abstracting away from time and place; but it will raise its head from time to time and mess with our clean, digital data. Horst Rittel famously talked about urban architecture as a Wicked Problem, where the solution to a real architectural challenge is hard to create, hard to detect and impossible to successfully emulate in a new place: local variations in culture trump what we learn from a previous architectural experiment.  Segal’s example gives me hope that, for some stations of invention and analysis, human intuition still reigns as the most accurate judge of human desire.


Flying Wings and Disaster Relief

The BBC’s Jack Stewart reported yesterday on a previously secret Google project to create a hybrid drone for delivery. This drone is interesting for several reasons- first, the wing design means it can fly horizontally far more efficiently than a helicopter design alone, since the wing generates lift and the plane-mode achieves a much faster cruising speed; second, Google describes the machine as a delivery vehicle for defibrillators and such, meaning that they have resolved to create a drone with quite a hefty payload. So this will be far more capable, in terms of delivery weight, than the standard inexpensive toy drones that are easily available today. We get to watch from the sidelines to see just how perception is handled on the drone- how it interacts with disaster victims on the ground- and how regulation deals with the influx of such machines in large quantity.

Let Them Make Robots

Thanks to Saman Amirpour for pointing me the way of a new IEEE Story by Tekla Perry: Robotics Company Prepares to Take Responsibility for Displaced Workers. Perry explains that Momentum Machines is busy automating the preparation of hamburgers. The machine peaks out at 6 burgers per minute- I think that outdoes the needs of even the most popular In-n-Out in San Francisco. Perry explains that Momentum recognizes that its machines will cause jobs to be eliminated when existing restaurants adopt the machine. I have lectured in the past about Employment Impact Assessments, and the lack thereof when automation changes the employment landscape at a company. But the solution offered by Momentum is tone-deaf in so many ways. They specifically offer discounted technical training to the former line cooks who were displaced. This seems like an idea born of startup-brainstorming, rather than ethnographically studying the needs of line cooks to understand just how pressured they are between low-paying jobs and debt on a day-to-day basis. Then there is the fact that Momentum plans to build its own restaurants. The line order cooks they will not hire are lost opportunities for jobs, they are not actual humans with pink slips in hand. In the end automation paves many paths to job loss and poverty, and I believe it is doing so more rapidly than it optimistically “unleashes job innovation.” Providing technical training is, obviously, a move to be applauded. But it is, in this case, a rhetorical move that does not offer any sort of structural solution to the basic problem: Momentum is spending millions of dollars to make machines that do the work of many employees for whom their paycheck is critical to quality of life.